The following are remarks by Joan Marsh, AT&T Senior Vice President of Federal Regulatory, as prepared for delivery at the MMTC 15th Annual Access to Capital and Telecom Policy Conference in Washington, D.C., July 20, 2017:
We live in an age of innovation and disruption. In these interesting times, I think it’s important to be clear on what you believe in. I believe in diversity and equality and inclusion. And for over 20 years, I’ve had the privilege of working for a company that supports those values. AT&T’s workforce consists of 32% women and 43% people of color; and we spent $14.2 billion with minority, women, and disabled veteran-owned suppliers in 2016, including over $1 billion a year spent with majority African-American owned companies. AT&T has also invested more in the U.S. than any other public company, including roughly $140 billion invested in our communications networks over the past five years. These investments enable 15.7 million internet connections, nearly 47 million video connections through DirecTV and U-Verse, about 147 million wireless customers, and, as of the first quarter of this year, 13 million connected cars.
During my tenure at AT&T, I’ve been fortunate enough to witness unprecedented technological change, whether through strategic infrastructure investments, technological advancements or products like the iPhone that dramatically reshaped the industry and our lives. I’m thrilled to have had a front seat for the ride.
But it’s the dollars and resources we’ve invested in people seeking to rise that make me the proudest, from our Aspire program targeting kids at risk of dropping out of high school, to the 1.5 million hours of student mentoring by employees, to our commitment to support gender equality in technology through programs like Girls Who Code.
Of all of these, one event stands out for me. Last Fall, our Chairman and CEO Randall Stephenson spoke at an internal gathering of AT&T employees and issued an emotional rebuke of the “polite society” that stands in the way of substantive conversations about race, and racial discrimination and the need to make progress on racial equality in this country. “Our communities are being destroyed by racial tension,” he said. “And we’re too polite to talk about it.” He went on to say that we have to start talking to each other – even if those discussions are going to be tough – and, if this dialogue was to begin at AT&T, he felt like it probably ought to start with him.”
Randall’s speech resonated with me because, at the time, I was on my own journey to understand what the Black Lives Matter Movement was trying to teach. The Movement called for a dialogue that I did not think I was equipped to have so I looked for deeper understanding in essays and news accounts and books. It was the writings of Ta-Nehisi Coates that had the most profound impact on me and took me closer to understanding the true depth and reach and impact of racial injustice in America.
I was raised in a small town in Illinois as the daughter of a bricklayer and a stay-at-home mom who raised five children. The economic base of my home town was factories and agriculture, and my public schooling was not particularly geared toward further educational advancement. I know something about opportunity inequality in rural America; and I know something about gender inequality in technology and in the workplace. But Mr. Coates’ opened my eyes to how little I truly understood about what it meant to grow up black in America.
Now, some might argue that the CEO of a Fortune 500 company has no place injecting himself this directly into difficult discussions about equity, equality and inclusion. I disagree. Diversity is valued at our company as it should be at all companies. We know a diverse workforce is key to our success. We also know that issues that divide us undermine our relationships with our employees, with our partners, with our customers and with the communities we serve.
We understand that, as a communications company, diversity and inclusion are central to our mission. And, as we move into the next era of innovation and technological advancement, digital equity and inclusion is one of our top priorities, including broadband access for all communities.
So, let’s talk about the state of broadband in America. Broadband today is not limited to a fiber-based wireline product connected to a desktop computer. Pew Research Center recently found that home broadband adoption appears to have plateaued – 67% of Americans have a wired home broadband connection, down slightly from 70% in 2013, a small but statistically significant difference. This change moves home broadband adoption rates back to where it was in 2012.
At the same time, there has been an increase in “smartphone-only” adults – those who own a smartphone that they can use to access the internet, but do not have traditional broadband service at home. Today smartphone adoption has reached parity with home broadband adoption – 68% of Americans now report that they own a smartphone – and 13% of Americans are “smartphone-only” – up from 8% in 2013. And some of the most significant changes in these adoption patterns are taking place among African Americans, in low income households and in households in rural areas.
These patterns are pronounced even as it relates to video content. Mobile online video consumption first passed non-mobile consumption last year. And the gulf is going to widen significantly in the coming years. Per one study, by 2018, people on average will spend 36 minutes watching online video on their phones and tablets compared with 18.5 minutes on non-mobile devices.
We also know that private investment continues to be the primary catalyst behind broadband deployment. We believe that one of the best ways for government to improve and expand high-speed broadband infrastructure is to remove legal and regulatory barriers to private-sector investment. Indeed, this was a core premise of the National Broadband Plan and Chairman Pai has demonstrated his commitment to addressing regulatory impediments to investment, deployment and innovation.
Even still, particularly in the case of many rural areas and tribal lands, private sector solutions are not always available. In those cases, the government can and should step in, but in a way designed to ensure that scarce government resources are being effectively targeted and spent. Too often precious resources are squandered by overbuilding broadband in areas where it has already been deployed. Over-broad definitions of “un-served” and “underserved” communities have led to inefficient subsidies and technology-specific mandates have left viable solutions on the sideline.
We need to acknowledge that it is simply not feasible to deploy fiber to every community. In certain areas, because of the geography or population density or terrain or any number of factors, mobile or fixed wireless options may be the best or only option to ensure that residents get connected. In fact, we are delivering broadband via fixed wireless technologies as part of our commitment to the FCC’s Connect America Program. Connecting America to broadband is not a “one-size fits all” problem; and we should not be searching for a “one-size fits all” solution.
It is also critical that we assess government subsidy programs to rid them of duplicate subsidies, waste, fraud and abuse. If waste and fraud go unchecked, subsidy programs become unstable and ultimately unsustainable. We are heartened that with the Connect America and Mobility Fund efforts underway right now at the FCC, the Commission is seeking to structure critical investments in a data-driven, technology neutral, and precisely targeted manner.
At the same time, we must be paving the way for the next generation of networks. Since the launch of the iPhone in 2007 – traffic on AT&T’s networks has increased 250,000%. Imagine what the future will bring in a world where virtual reality, connected devices, augmented reality, and smart cities abound. According to some experts, there will be 20 billion connected devices by 2022, and 28 billion by 2025. Making sure that our networks are able to support the needs of all our customers requires continued investment in not only the networks of today, but also in the networks of tomorrow.
Talk of 5G in this town has expanded well beyond circles of policy wonks. More and more, people are thinking about the ways their lives can be improved by immersive connectivity. But as we imagine all the possibilities for our 5G futures, we must start planning and building now.
This next generation of mobile broadband infrastructure starts by improving upon existing technology. In April of this year, we demonstrated our commitment to America’s 5G future by announcing plans to bring a 5G Evolution build to our customers in 20 metro regions, including Austin, Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Nashville, and San Francisco, among others.
5G Evolution relies on small cells and aggregated spectrum bands to boost the capacity and speed of today’s technologies as we work toward finalizing the 5G standard. We’re installing small cells to densify our networks today. This allows us to lay a solid foundation to ensure our ability to deliver 5G as early as late 2018, once standards are complete and equipment can be developed and coordinated appropriately. And we began our first true 5G trials in Austin, Texas last year.
But even as we conduct our trials, and new standards are being developed, the full promise of 5G relies on the adoption and institution of smart policies at the federal, state, and local levels. Federally, the FCC is already off to a great start with its Spectrum Frontiers Order, that re-allocated important 5G spectrum bands and adopted a flexible regulatory framework that will support rapid deployment of these new technologies. It is important that we follow thru with an auction of those new bands to get that spectrum to the market.
At the state and local level, we are asking policymakers to focus on updating siting and right-of-way policies to ensure 5G growth in their areas. Many states have answered that call and much progress has already been made.
Connecting America to first-in-class infrastructure and the networks of the future requires us to find win-win opportunities to work collaboratively across cultural, partisan and socio-economic lines. But creating meaningful opportunities for digital equity and inclusion goes well beyond figuring out how to get networks deployed, it requires us to think deeply about what the idea of the Humanity of Connection really means.
Brene Brown defines connection as the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment. Last Fall, Randall Stephenson issued a powerful speech that called on us to understand each other – to not only talk, but to truly connect. At the center of all of that is communication.
We live in an age of innovation and disruption, of opportunity and cost, of benefit and risk. As communications technologies continue to evolve, I believe digital equity is within reach, but to achieve it we must continue to bridge gaps – in both access and understanding – and to work together for the communities we all serve. For our part, AT&T looks forward to continuing to support and develop a diverse workforce, to support minority-owned vendors and suppliers, to creating jobs for diverse communities, and to investing in technology and networks that will transition us to a 5G future, which will further bridge the digital divide, creating economic opportunities for communities that need them most.
I want to thank Kim and Maurita for inviting me to speak today. And if time permits, I’m happy to take questions.